Elliot Montpellier

Major: Environmental Health Science

Hometown: Greensboro, NC and Welland, Ontario

Study Abroad Program: IES India

Hazrat: Departing from a Pulsing Presence

The train starts moving, and I’m moving with it, but I’m not exactly in the train. I’m on my way back to Hazrat Nizammudin, a station in Delhi named after Nizammudin, a 13th century Sufi saint. I’m on the Punjab Mail, one of who knows how many trains that make up the magnificent web that lies across the stunning country that is India. The Indian Railways is the second largest employer in the world, after the Chinese army and for all its inefficiencies it’s a masterpiece in its own right, moving nearly 10 billion passengers annually. Take for example the six-hour delay that has resulted in one solo traveler, me, to now be hanging from his replacement train as it accelerates out of the Gwalior station. I’m returning to Delhi after a weekend in Orchha, a village with ruins from the Bundela Princely State and Gwalior, a small city, population two and a half million known for its citadel-topped mesa. It was my first weekend exploring outside of Delhi, where I’m studying as a Phillips Ambassador, a UNC program that encourages students to explore the vast continent of Asia.

As we pull away from the station, two men from inside the general class compartment that I’m riding (it’s the only spot on a train back to Delhi for the next six hours) decide that it’s not okay for me to be outside during the course of this train ride. The other guys hanging on for dear life will make it, they decide, but I guess there’s something in my eyes that tells them I might not. So now I’m being yanked into the compartment only to end up face to face with one of my new friends, our faces mere inches from one another because there just isn’t space in the entrance to this train. Immediately people begin to take earnest interest, everyone is a little surprised to find me in this compartment, reserved for the poorest where a six hour ticket costs a mere forty two rupees, about one American dollar. This train heads north to Amritsar, home to the majestic Golden Temple, one of the holiest sites for Sikhs. Many of my fellow passengers will make the journey there, another eight hours in these cramped conditions. At each stop there is an osmotic transfer of bodies as people fight to get off and on. As some passengers leave there are two surges of bodies that collide at the entrance, those on the platform are trying their best to board and those onboard are trying their best to fend off those trying to get on with the hope that there might be a little more space for the next leg of the trip.

This is the pulse of India, of Delhi, of Safdarjung Enclave and Munirka Village, my homes for the duration of my stay in India; it’s a constant ebb and flow of people, of ideas, of smells, of emotions, a stirring experience that I know will be a catalyst for many of my future pursuits and adventures.  As a Phillips Ambassador I traveled to Delhi with fourteen students from across the United States with IES, a program that organizes study abroad programs across the globe. The program is well balanced with a chance to study at both an American center and Jawaharlal Nehru University, India’s premier social science university. I resided with a middle class family, with a son my age with whom I instantly bonded over our mutual love of music. The family was a perfect fit, the mom a kind and affectionate economics professor and the dad a non-conformist anti-castist ex-Brahmin with an incredible knowledge of the entire subcontinent from his experiences as a travel and hiking guide and agent.

My first semester was an incredible jumping off point, but as September came to an end I decided that when my program ended I wanted to stay and directly enroll at JNU, living on campus and taking all of my classes there. After two months of communicating with the UNC Study abroad office, all of my arrangements were made! Over Christmas break I packed my things into a backpack and hit the trains again traveling to southern India, visiting five different states, pepper, coffee and tea plantations, four World Heritage sites, numerous pristine beaches, celebrating New Year’s in Mumbai and meeting innumerable travelers and incredible people along the way. As I neared the end of my travels I was incredibly homesick, for Delhi, and couldn’t wait to get back. When I returned the winter was surprisingly biting, with no heating being common in most homes; I wore sweatshirts and long johns consistently.

In my second semester, my knowledge and deep passion for Indian culture blossomed as I found myself with far more time on campus interacting and befriending students and professors at JNU and immersing myself into my classes and campus life. JNU is incredibly political and notorious for its leftist activism as well as its rich international community from across South Asia, Central Asia, and Africa. Posters and banners adorn the walls of hallways, hostels (dorms), canteens, dhabas, academic and administrative buildings alike. One of my favorites reads, “Feed the People not the Ferraris!” The most active political groups on campus are student wings of the Communist Party of India usually at the helm of student government. The social activism, free thought, and drive for equality are echoed by professors in classes and in academic arenas outside of the class with many faculty members consistently writing, making news appearances and engaging in public discourse on numerous issues at the forefront of modern India’s economic growth.

As I settle back into life in Chapel Hill and face the difficulties of readjusting I’m living the impact that my time in Delhi had on me. My frustrations now that I’m back are largely driven by the jarring juxtaposition of lifestyles, but are continuing to teach me about the country that I lived in for the year and how much I appreciate some of its simplicity, breadth, and complexities that form the incredible civil society there. The Phillips Ambassador program opened up doors into a country and region that I hadn’t previously considered when regarding future academic and career plans. My departure from Delhi was bittersweet, since I knew I would be returning to UNC, but at the same time felt like I was leaving the first place where I had established a home for myself on my own. As my studies at UNC conclude in the upcoming year, I’ll be avidly pursuing numerous avenues that offer me a chance to return to Delhi, India or the larger subcontinent. The energy and potential that I saw across the region was mirrored in my own enthusiasm while living there. It is a feeling I won’t soon forget and one which I hope to replicate and channel into my future pursuits upon returning.